County view August 28, 2007

Too close to call

While rain has caused misery for many this summer it has at least kept the County Championship race wide open going into the final few weeks of the season

Mushtaq Ahmed: can he spin Sussex to another Championship? © Getty Images

While rain has caused misery for many this summer, it has at least kept the County Championship race wide open going into the final few weeks of the season. Yorkshire, seemingly on the slide after two defeats, remain on top after a crushing win against Warwickshire, but only have two games left. The fixtures programme has worked out a treat, too, as those matches are against Sussex and Hampshire.

This is exactly the sort of finish the Championship needs. The two-division system continues to consolidate the talent towards the top and provides tough, pressurised cricket. Players have spoken about the intensity of matches this season. Mushtaq Ahmed compared the Lancashire-Sussex match at Liverpool to a Test match, and his captain described the game as "one of the most intense Championship matches I've played".

Now there are five sides still eyeing the pennant with 30.5 points separating them. However, Hampshire have lost Shane Warne through injury and Muttiah Muralitharan leaves Lancashire after their match against Kent. Durham, in fifth, are still savouring their Friends Provident success, but the double is one fairytale too far.

That leaves Sussex, the defending champions, who know all about holding their nerve in the final stages. Unlike Hampshire and Lancashire they will retain full use of their match-winner, Mushtaq Ahmed, and also have the support of Saqlain Mushtaq if any pitch looks like being a raging turner. The loss of three players to the Twenty20 World Championship would seem to be a major handicap, but only Luke Wright has been a regular Championship player. Matt Prior has been away all summer, allowing Andrew Hodd to show himself as a fine deputy, and James Kirtley has played four games (with a return of one wicket).

When the pressure increases and tensions grow, the experience of "been there, done that" counts for a lot. This year's Sussex team is very similar to the successful sides of 2003 and 2006, and the memories of those run-ins will count in their favour. That experience will be no more vital than next week at Hove when Yorkshire are the visitors.

Darren Gough and Adil Rashid: potential match-winners for Yorkshire © Getty Images

Darren Gough's team can't afford any slip-ups - and their fate could take a major turn during the penultimate week of the season when they don't play - but what a story it would be if the Championship went back to Headingley. When Gough returned as captain it was perceived by some as a final, desperate throw of the dice by a club in turmoil. But he has worked his magic; 37 wickets at 22 isn't bad for a guy with two dodgy knees, and he has played every Championship match this season, surpassing all expectations.

The late-summer plethora of one-day internationals means Michael Vaughan and Matthew Hoggard are both available, but not for the first time, much attention will be focused on Adil Rashid. Imagine an English legspinner helping his county to the Championship. That would be something to write home about. The Hove surface will no doubt be prepared to help Mushtaq, but that brings Rashid (37 wickets at 37) into the equation. Despite fears of rushing his development, talk of Rashid being second spinner in Sri Lanka is gathering pace, and a strong finish to the season will put him even closer.

Inevitably, though, foreign talent will play a role. Yorkshire have recruited Inzamam-ul-Haq (and Imran Tahir, for some unfathomable reason), while Jacques Rudolph has been their leading run-scorer. VVS Laxman is with Lancashire, Shivnarine Chanderpaul's runs are still flowing for Durham, and Murray Goodwin is again productive for Sussex. The injury to Warne has removed one of the men who could have had a major say in where the trophy finishes. But Hampshire's last game is against Yorkshire. What price on Warne appearing again this season?

Ups and downs
The race for the crown isn't all. At the bottom of Division One, teams are battling to avoid the drop.

Worcestershire resigned themselves to relegation at about the time New Road was underwater. Kent and Surrey are currently jostling to escape the drop zone, but Warwickshire - after their record hammering against Yorkshire - could yet be pulled into trouble. Their bowling resources are thin and the batsmen are losing form at the wrong time. To add further spice, Kent are still campaigning for additional points from their abandoned match against Worcestershire, so we may not even know the final outcome at the end of the season.

The identity of the two teams who will move into the top flight is already known. Somerset and Nottinghamshire have led Division Two for much of the season and are well clear of Essex in third. For Nottinghamshire it will be a swift return after their relegation by one point last season.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer on Cricinfo